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Abyssals – how to play with and against my army

Note: This article was written last year for the Mantic blog, before the CoK book changes were finalised. My updated thoughts are at the end of the article.

Well the dust has settled and after the amazing weekend that was UK Clash of Kings 2016, I found myself with a respectable (in my mind!) 5th place out of 75 using my Abyssals army. I’ve been playing with Abyssals as my primary army for most of the year now and I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a good handle on how to play them. At the moment I’m currently ranked as the UK’s best Abyssal Player on the UK Rankings Page. I was very happy with the performance of my army.

Using this army

The army splits into two to three battlegroups, depending on what’s in my opponents army. My infantry battlegroup consists of the Lower Abyssals, Abyssal Temptress and the two Efreet. The Abyssal Champion often operates on his own, while everything else goes in my fast attack wing.

If my opponent has a shooting horde, war engines or a spellcaster that I want to shut down, then the Champion will set up nearly directly opposite them, and aim to charge the relevant target in turn 2. Otherwise he’ll float around the battlefield, picking fights he knows he can win and lending support to others. In a tight spot, he’ll block a charge by parking himself in front of a unit.

The infantry battlegroup advances up the field providing a solid block of regenerating nerve that is still formidable in melee. It uses cover where it can, but its main objective is to provide an anvil for the enemy to smash against. I went for two handed weapons because I found that I often tempt charges from high Crushing Strength/Thunderous Charge units that would be damaging on 2+ anyway, so may as well give my guys Crushing Strength so they represent more of a threat to the enemy. A horde of bane-chanted Lower Abyssals is a very frightening prospect to be charged by!

The two Efreet float around concentrating their fire on single, high value targets. Where possible the Temptress buffs them with Bane-Chant. When people first start playing with Abyssals they see Efreet as the go-to unit, often with a Chroneas in the mix as well. I’ve tried that build and I do not think it’s as effective as its reputation makes it out to be. It suffers from very real weaknesses that I cover below and I’ve found that two Efreet are a solid enough firebase to be a threat while not penalising the rest of my army. Having said that, I think that I’d even consider going down to just a single Efreet since scenario play was my biggest weakness.

The individuals between the two units will have the Efreet with the Boots of Levitation in front, followed by the other Efreet with the Temptress in rear position. Note that the Individuals deploy slightly back from the front of the Lower Abyssals. This means that regular units will be unable to charge them since they can’t physically fit. If my opponent has a combat Individual then I’ll often hide the Efreet behind the Abyssals instead to protect them.

The forward Efreet has a massive 26” threat range – 14” move and 12” shooting range. This means that it can potentially clear some enemy chaff or put damage on other units in turn 1, as long as it’s safe to do so. Even when it advances the full 14”, the Temptress will still be able to advance and cast Bane Chant on it to give it some Piercing as well.

They set up against the board edge to prevent them being flanked. Gargoyles on the inside provide cover and screening to the rest of the units behind. The Horsemen are close enough to the Tortured Souls that they can move At The Double and easily move all the way through them. The Brew of Haste will usually be closer to the board edge, since that extra inch of speed means that a unit that’s just in charge range of the left hand Horsemen will also be in charge range of the right hand ones, allowing for a multicharge.

Ba’el will usually just carry out an Advance order on the first turn, matching the Tortured Souls’ move, so that he can try and snipe something of value with his Lightning Bolt. Even with the Horsemen moving At The Double (where possible) on the first turn, he will still be in Inspiring range of them.

I am flexible with these setups and they are dependent on enemy positioning, objectives and terrain (no point putting the flanking group facing down impassable terrain for example), but in an ideal situation this is how I would set them up.

Beating this list

I’ve been playing with very similar Abyssal lists for nearly a year now and I’m keenly aware of its drawbacks. They are:

  • Disordered Efreet’s are useless
  • Efreet’s are very vulnerable to enemy spells
  • The army is very weak for scenario scoring

I’ve been using Efreets less and less over the last 6 months – starting with 3 Efreets and Chroneas and now down to just two, and considering dropping one of them. While the rest of the list is nasty, a lot of the killing power comes from these guys. Everything else can be beaten with regular tactics. The thing that sets this list apart from others are the Fireballs being launched in every direction.

Like with other shooting armies, the mistake that people often make is thinking that they have to kill the shooting units in order to neutralise it. That simply isn’t true. Stopping the shooting units from actually shooting, however you do it, will neutralise them. The simplest way to do this is to disorder the shooting units. I believe every army should have a combat individual who can reliably cause at least one point of damage to shooting units in melee in order to shut them down. These individuals can not only stop units from shooting, but they’re also generally difficult for the enemy to shoot at. My Abyssal Champion fulfils this role in my list.

“But Nick!” You say, “My opponent will hide their Efreet or other shooting units so I can’t charge them with my Individuals!” Great. Job done. If your opponent is hiding their shooting units, this often means that those units are unable to shoot effectively. There’s usually one of two outcomes;

  • Your opponent moves their shooting units, including Efreet, At The Double in order to protect them from being charged. This means they cannot shoot. Win for you.
  • Your opponent moves their shooting units to stop them being charged, however their Line of Sight is now either blocked entirely or blocked to high priority targets. The shooting units can’t target anything of value. Win for you.

Either way, if you can threaten Efreet, who have low defence and nerve, with a charge from one of your units, you can often force them to move so they’re unable to shoot or unable to do so effectively. Keeping my Efreet safe turns out to be one of the hardest aspects of playing this army.

My biggest fear with this army, or specifically the Efreet, is enemy spells – specifically Lightning Bolt. Efreet are easy to break with De4 and only 11/13 Nerve. It doesn’t take much Lightning Bolt to snipe them, and often the LB is on a Height 2 unit so I really struggle to keep the Efreet hidden. Even if I do, I run into the same trouble where hiding them nullifies their effectiveness.

I once went up against a player with a total of 18 Lightning Bolt in their army, all of which was Height 3+. I figured I had no chance since he’d be able to snipe the Efreet out from under me and I had no real answer to it.

Except he split his fire. One volley at an Efreet (which he did waver), one at the Horsemen and one at the horde of Lower Abyssals. He did no lasting damage. I told him after the game that if he’d concentrated his fire on one Efreet at a time then he’d have killed one every turn.

I do keep coming back to killing the Efreet, but the point is that they’re real heavy hitters in the army. I have my flying and cavalry wing, yes, but nothing else is as flexible as those Efreet. Nullify them and the army starts to fall apart.

But what about if you can’t effectively threaten the Efreet? It’s simple. Win on scenario. The rest of the army is fairly fragile. I have nearly 700 points tied up in Individuals in this army. That’s only 1300 points that someone needs to wipe out before I’m completely unable to win on most scenarios.

All but one of my losses with this army have been because my opponent took out my ability to claim objectives. Only once have I lost a game because my opponent killed enough of my fireballers, and that, I would argue, was due to my own poor positioning.

My game at Clash of Kings against Walt Simpons Undead, my only loss of the weekend, was a prime example. We were playing Loot and by the end of the game he had managed to kill all but two of my scoring units (a regiment of Lower Abyssals and Ba’el). While my Efreet were still alive and buzzing about, they weren’t able to carry loot and weren’t able to kill all of his loot carriers before the end of the game.

The same advice applies to any army which relies heavily on powerful Individuals – take out the scoring units. If they can’t win the objectives then they can’t win the game.

Plans for 2017

I started playing Abyssals partly to see if the complaints about fireball spam were valid or not. There’s nothing like playing with an army to learn its weaknesses, and this year has been very educational in that regard! I began by spamming Fireball to the max with 3 Efreet, Chroneas and a Diadem of Dragonkind on a standard bearer. I found that it was incredibly weak in scenario play and the more I reduced the spam, the stronger the army became.

However, I often switch up my armies if just to keep the game fresh for me and keep me learning better tactics. As I type this, I’m currently on a plane to the Czech Republic to play in my last tournament of year in Brno. Right now my army has been on a total of 6 flights, not including this one and two of which it was checked into the baggage hold, AND more train journeys than I care to try and remember. It’s not in good shape any more. In fact packing it away for todays flight, I was dismayed to find that I had a regiment of Abyssals where every single figure had snapped off the base. (edited note: I also managed to forget to take my army off the plane when getting off in Brno…)

The display board that I built for the army barely survived its trips over the Atlantic, and from my window seat on this Ryanair flight I saw it being loaded onto the plane and the case it is in was crushed under the weight of all the other cases on top.

I suspect this will be its last tournament outing as I retire Abyssals amongst the ruins of my other smashed-to-smithereen armies. Next year? I’m thinking Orcs or Salamanders.

Updated thoughts following CoK Changes

So what changes have directly impacted this army?

  • Fireball & Lightning Bolt suffer cover
  • Individuals do not score at all in scenarios like Dominate and Invade
  • Bane-Chant requires two successes to grant Piercing.
  • If I were to take a regular Archfiend then I wouldn’t be able to take Regeneration or Ensorcelled Armour.

Would I overhaul the list entirely because of these? No. Fireball suffering cover will affect the Efreet, but on the other hand one of their primary counters got toned down as well – Lightning Bolt. I find that with the Efreet I can easily move them about the board to get clean shots, and even so going from a 4+ to 5+ is not the most devastating thing in the world. The lack of bane-chant is again painful, but even without Piercing they still put out an incredible amount of damage.

The biggest change that worries me with this list is the change to scoring. At the moment I have 630 points tied up in units that cannot score at all. That was already a weakness of the list and the changes just increases that.

In honesty, none of those changes are unfair. Individuals still scoring half their points in Dominate/Invade was painful for my opponent, as was Efreet firing over the top of my units. Both of those tactics have been toned down and made less frustrating for my opponents. It means that I have to play the army a bit more carefully but it in no way completely ruins the army.

The first change that I would make would be to swap the Temptress out for a Harbinger with the Lute of Insatiable Darkness. The only reason I had the Temptress there was to provide a bane-chant platform and that can now be done much cheaper with the Harbinger. Making that swap saves me 45 points, though I’m not sure what I’d spend it on at the moment. Perhaps downgrading Ba’el to a regular Archfiend with Wings for another 60 points saved will give me enough to upgrade the regiment of Lower Abyssals to Succubi. The extra points left over again could upgrade the Archfiend with the Healing Brew (5 points) and give the Succubi or Lower Abyssals Horde the Brew of Strength.

Things to play around with certainly, but contrary to what some folks on the Internet might say, even a list like this which took several significant hits is far, far from unusable. Less frustrating to play against, but still more than competitive and possibly even better with some extra tweaks from points saved.